When it comes to sleep, you need to give it all you’ve got, as in, use every healthy trick in the book to make sure you do it well. The body does much of its cellular maintenance and repair work during sleep, so falling short doesn’t just leave you groggy in the morning – it can torpedo the body’s defenses and make getting sick far too easy, hardly the prescription for the COVID-19 era.
If helping your body fend off viral invaders isn’t enough of an inspiration to get you working on your sleep habits, keep in mind that lack of sleep might literally shrink and/or atrophy your brain . Other research suggests that chronic poor sleep may also be associated with earlier onset of Alzheimer’s. Poor sleep makes its negative impact felt throughout the body, boosting inflammation, exacerbating cardiac and metabolic issues, increasing sensitivity to pain and weakening the immune system.
If, over the years, you’ve gotten used to poor sleep, or not enough of it, I urge you to take advantage of this pandemic lockdown period to break old, bad sleep hygiene habits and re-learn how to sleep. Here’s where to start:
Good sleep is the key to helping your body help itself.
As we all do our best to find our way through the pandemic, getting good sleep, and plenty of it is one of the easiest ways to keep immunity strong. When you’re sleeping well, your body does its repairs, clears out cellular debris and makes and releases cytokines, proteins that mediate and regulate immunity, and can help fight inflammation and infection.
However, when you short-change yourself on sleep, you cut down the precious time your body needs for optimal cytokine production and their regulated release, which makes it that much easier for viral and bacterial invaders to set up shop and make you sick.
One more reason to sleep well? Doing so may help make your killer T-cells even more deadly to viruses, according to a recent study, so don’t scrimp on the shut-eye. (Take that COVID-19!)
Bad habits by day equals poor sleep at night.
OK, so you know you need to sleep well to stay well, but why isn’t it happening these days? Just what exactly is messing with your sleep? Well, in addition to COVID-19 stress and anxiety, you may unwittingly be layering on any number of bad habits that can trigger more trouble than you realize. Seven of the most common sneaky sleep-stealers:
- Booze – sure, it’ll help you nod off, but it’ll also delay the onset of restorative REM sleep, then wake you a few hours later when you need to hit the loo
- Lack of exercise – by not tiring your body physically during the day, it’s going to feel more charged up at night (precisely when you don’t want to feel revved up)
- All-over-the-map bedtimes – staying up too late, sleeping in to ‘catch-up’ or sleeping too little, they’ll mess with your body’s natural sleep rhythms
- Napping too long or late – naps longer than 30 minutes or after 4 pm can disrupt nighttime sleep
- Eating too close to bedtime – will disrupt sleep quality as your body works overtime on digestion when it should be at rest
- Sweet treats – even a little bit of sugar late in the evening can give you a late night jolt of energy and keep you awake
- Taking supplements after 5 pm – some supplements can have an energizing effect so take the bulk of them earlier in the day (with the exception of magnesium and a few other sleep helpers).
Train daily for good sleep at night.
Stress, anxiety, poor sleep habits, on their own or when they’re all conspiring together, wind up teaching our bodies how not to sleep. To reset your internal body clock, skip the pills and potions. Instead, reset your clock – and use this lockdown downtime to brush up on immune strengthening good sleep skills. Start practicing now, so when life gets back to some semblance of normal, you’ll be well-rested and those healthy sleep habits will be well-entrenched. Start today with a few of nine these easy-to-incorporate techniques:
- Get a daily dose of bright, natural morning light which helps regulate sleep rhythms.
- Avoid fluorescent light in the evening —they are disruptive to your body’s biological clock.
- Hit the hay at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. (Your body clock thrives on consistency.)
- If you’re short on sleep one day, return to your normal bedtime and wake time ASAP, rather than sleeping in or taking a nap.
- In the evenings, downshift activity levels to give body and mind time to slow down, unwind and ease the transition from wakefulness to sleep.
- Observe an ‘electronic sundown,’ shutting down all screens at least two hours before bedtime – and keep them out of the bedroom too.
- If you must have a phone in the bedroom, turn the ringer and notifications off, switch to airplane mode and place the phone (and its sleep-disrupting electromagnetic waves/EMWs) as far away as possible from your bed.
- Keep bedrooms as dark as possible, as any amount of light disrupts sleep-inducing melatonin production.
- If you can’t manage a completely dark bedroom, wear a sleep mask, or invest in black-out curtains.
Put your mind and body in the mood – for sleep.
In addition to helping regulate your immune system with good sleep and plenty of it (so it does not over-react or under-react), be kind to body and mind by reducing stress and anxiety wherever possible. Though it’s hard to avoid unsettling imagery and breaking news these days, remember, you do have the power to control the volume of fear-mongering and vitriol you let into your life.
Start turning down the bad news firehose by spending less time on what these days are often disturbing posts and comments on Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour news feeds. Use the time instead to have real (yet virtual) conversations with friends and loved ones on Zoom, WhatsApp, Skype or by simple texting. That should help keep pandemic-induced stress from overwhelming your every waking thought – then keeping you up at night with worry. When evening rolls around, use more of the post-dinner hours to wind down and ease your body into a sleepier groove with any or all of the following six sleep-inducing rituals:
- Turn down the lights in the bedroom, and if possible, switch to amber, pink, red or yellow bulbs for a warm, soothing, candle-light like glow.
- Start the wind-down process with a few gentle, restorative yoga moves to help quiet the mind, tame stress, lower blood pressure and release muscle tension.
- Next, slip into a hot bath for a 20 minute soak to further relax the blood vessels and release tension. (A hot shower is helpful as well, but not quite as effective.)
- Towel off, suit up into your PJs and jot down a few thoughts of gratitude, or, if you’re feeling anxious, write down what’s on your mind.
- If you’ve been dealing with pandemic-related nightmares or overly vivid dreams, once your head hits the pillow, try doing some positive imagery visualizations to help redirect the nighttime narrative.
- Get under the covers and do this simple, deep muscle relaxation exercise: starting with your toes and working your way up the body, intentionally tense, hold for a few seconds and then release each of your muscle groups, one at a time…and drift off.
Take the edge off naturally.
When you need a little assist, instead of dangerous prescription sleep aids, take a more natural approach. About a half an hour to an hour before bedtime, try these nervous system soothers: magnesium glycinate or threonate (start with 300mg and increase to 400 or 500mg if needed) and glycine (start with 3 grams and increase if needed). You can also try 200 to 400mg of L-theanine or 300 to 600mg of GABA on their own or in combination. Experiment a bit to determine what works best for you.
Stop staring at the ceiling.
Still not falling asleep? Then get out of bed! Staying in bed longer than 45 minutes when you can’t fall asleep only increases stress and anxiety – and trains your brain not to recognize bedtime as sleep time. Head to another room, keep lights low and do a calming, screen-free activity, like meditation, knitting, reading a (paper) book of poetry, prayer, or anything calming. Wait about 60 to 90 minutes before going back to bed.
Sleep well, and stay well!